basic plot structure

Teaching the plot diagram seems like a pretty fool-proof topic, right? I mean, can a teacher really mess it up? Actually, the answer is yes. There are a few common mistakes teachers make when teaching a basic plot structure. The good news is that teachers make mistakes all the time, and it’s not the end of the world. We learn from them, and we become better teachers. After all, where do you think the idea for this post came from? ?

Mistake #1: Teaching the Exposition As the Opening Scene

Before you panic, let me explain. Teaching the exposition as the opening scene isn’t totally incorrect. But it’s not totally correct, either. The exposition is the who, when/where, and what of the story. More accurately, it’s where the author exposes the main character and the setting (time, place, and mood) that form the backdrop of the story. 

Teaching the exposition as the opening scene may work 90% of the time. But occasionally, students will run into a story that introduces the problem or inciting incident in the opening scene. In those instances, students will have a difficult time differentiating between the exposition and the inciting incident.

plot diagram tips

Mistake #2: Deemphasizing the Inciting Incident

There are many different types of plot structures. Whether you use Freytag’s pyramid, the plot pyramid, the three-act structure, or some other plot diagram, you want to emphasize the importance of the inciting incident. 

The inciting incident is the catalyst that launches the story into action. It is the character’s “call to action.” It is also deeply connected to the falling action and thus the story’s theme, so your students may be missing critical literary connections if you leave it out of your plot structure.

The falling action is the moment right after the climax. In the falling action, the conflict is addressed, and the theme of the story becomes apparent. As readers, we look forward to this moment! 

If you deemphasize the inciting incident (or merge it with another plot element), the connection between conflict and theme becomes less apparent. Students might also struggle to identify the climax and falling action because it’s not rooted in or connected to a specific event.

inciting incident

Mistake #3: Teaching Climax As The Most Exciting Part

This one is probably the most significant plot structure faux pas. The climax may be the most exciting part of a story, but it also may not be! Teaching climax in this way doesn’t set students up for success long term. 

Sometimes the climax is not exciting at all.

Sometimes the story contains several exciting moments.

Sometimes readers disagree on what the “most exciting” moment is in a story.

The climax is the turning point. It is that tense moment when the protagonist faces the conflict head-on (and for the last time). 

To find it, I often have kids look at the falling action. I ask them how the main conflict was resolved or unraveled. Once they can identify that, I ask them what event occurred immediately before it was resolved. Eureka! There’s the climax. 

Basic plot structure faux pas

Mistake #4: Asking Students to Diagram the Plot As They Read

You can really only diagram a story once you’ve seen it through to the end. It’s pretty easy to identify the exposition, inciting incident, and rising action events as you read. However, most of our favorite stories are unpredictable. This unpredictability means we can’t truthfully identify the climax, falling action, and resolution until we’ve seen the ending. For this reason, I think efforts to have students plot as they read are useless.

Use the time that students are reading to encourage them to think about other elements – the characters, the setting, the impact of the setting on the story, the conflict and how it is evolving, etc. Or, allow them to sit back and enjoy the ride! Only once the ride is over should you ask students to look back and identify the different plot milestones. ?

Resources For Teaching Plot Structure

If you are looking for resources to use when teaching the basic plot structure, I’ve shared some of my favorite lessons and activities in a previous blog post. You can read more about how I incorporated Pixar Shorts, Podcasts, and Greek Myths to teach the basic plot structure here.

You can also download my basic plot structure with essential questions/key reminders for each plot element by subscribing to my newsletter below.

I hope you have found clarity in teaching the plot structure through this blog post. Leave a comment below or find me on FB or IG and let’s continue the conversation! I’d love to hear your thoughts or any follow-up questions you might have.

All the best, Natayle